Interview with Piotr Magnuszewski, Programme Leader, Centre for Systems Solutions

The EIT Climate-KIC community comprises a rich diversity of expertise, skills and perspectives across our alumni, start-ups, innovation partners, advisors and associates, all of whom contribute to our innovation capacity. 

This week, we speak to Piotr Magnuszewski, Programme Leader at Centre for Systems Solutions.

One of the biggest challenges with teaching sustainability is highlighting how certain decisions may impact the bigger picture; helping people visualise and understand the holistic benefits of adopting more sustainable methods is key to having these methods catch on in society. This February, EIT Climate-KIC will begin offering its online course, “Teaching sustainability – Using simulation to reach the SDGs in regional transformation“, which aims to use advanced simulation tools to give educators new insights to better equip the decision makers of the future. The following interview with Piotr Magnuszewski of the Centre for Systems Solutions explains how social simulations can empower sustainability educators, and contribute to sustainable transformation.

Let’s start with the most obvious question: What is a social simulation?

That is a very good question, and its answer is actually not obvious at all. In fact, if you happen to google the term, you will receive a number of definitions, most of which are not referring to our specific innovative approach. In the most widespread use, social simulation applies to computer-based models that analyze human social behavior in various environments and generate a range of possible outcomes of social interactions that are abstracted from real-world situations. The social simulations that we develop at the Centre for Systems Solutions partially originate from such methods; however, we do not rely on computer algorithms to study social behavior. In fact, our unique design has much more in common with dynamic role-playing, improvisation theatre, or serious games…

Ok, so what is a serious game, then?

To make a long story short, a serious game is a game that goes beyond competiton and fun. It does not exclude it, but this is not its main goal. For example, here at the Centre for System Solutions, we often use serious games in educational contexts. The word “serious” as it appears here suggests that in addition to being entertainment, such a game contains yet another important element: A serious goal (or set of goals). Among such goals, there may be persuasion, message transmission, learning or skills acquisition (e.g. skills associated with managing complex transformational processes).

To sum things up, a social simulation is thus a combination of simulation techniques and a serious game?

To put it more precisely, I would say that a social simulation is a type of serious game with elements of systems analysis, creative group scenario building, and role-playing. To be effective, it has to offer a social experience, engaging people of different backgrounds and worldviews to constructively confront each other, learn to solve conflicts, and negotiate or empathise with each other. This experience should also be easily translated into our daily life, triggering reactions and solutions that may be applied to challenges faced outside the simulations’ reality. To do this, all social simulations apply the so-called procedural rhetoric—a term coined by Ian Bogost to refer to game design that is aimed at creating spaces mimicking real world situations and challenges—that can be actively explored by players.

Ok, but how does this in-game reality refer to the real world?

Basically, procedural rhetoric entails persuasion or expression. Through the use of symbolic representations, it effectively, yet not explicitly, conveys ideas about the world. Let me give you an example taken from The World’s Future Game. With the growing threat of negative impacts of climate change, most people nowadays acknowledge the problem. Yet, the mechanisms of climate change often remain unknown to the general public. So, in order to represent the negative impacts of human activity on climate in this simulation, we employ a very simple mechanism for generating carbon dioxide (CO2) and accumulating greenhouse gases (GHG). They are symbolically represented by cubic grey tokens that appear whenever a player decides either to change the land use (e.g. by building a factory on a natural area, or as a byproduct of their manufacturing activity). At the end of each round, the grey tokens are collected from the board by the moderator and distributed evenly between two tracks—one represents the atmosphere, the other represents the ocean. So far, so good. Then, as in real life, when the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere and/or CO2 in the ocean exceeds certain levels, extreme events, such as hurricanes or floods, sweep off players’ assets, reducing their income, well-being or level of safety. At this phase of the simulation, most participants realize that it’s high time they adopted a decarbonization strategy, and invest in the zero-emission production facilities. Content with their “positive transformation”, they are truly shocked when, at the end of the next round, they are again struck by a disaster. Why? they usually ask. The answer is simple: Global warming that causes extreme weather conditions may be irreversible in our life span. In other words, the effects of the sustainable transformation that we are launching now may not be observed instantly. We could be looking at hundreds of years of warmer temperatures, even if we make dramatic cuts in GHG emissions right now!

So, what you are generally saying is that a simulation may help people better understand the processes that occur in the real world?

Yes, but it doesn’t stop there. Well-designed social simulations are expected to make participants experience an “aha” moment and, in doing so, trigger change. This change starts with the new understanding but is intended to affect participants’ attitudes, and—most desirably—the way we behave or act. Moreover, social simulations act as a training ground, where players are given the opportunity to observe the relationships between different aspects of a system and thus see the problem from a bird’s-eye view. It also allows them to make mistakes, draw conclusions and apply them in their own national, regional, local, and personal contexts.

How?

I will illustrate it using yet another example from The World’s’ Future Game. The simulation revolves around the topic of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a very complex topic with lots of overlapping and contradicting targets, and embracing them all seems overwhelming, simply due to their volume and scope. While their pursuit is the key to ensuring us all a more secure and fair future, approaching them can be daunting. In addressing this, the uniqueness of the social simulation lies in connecting abstract ideas to tangible actions and consequences, allowing participants to experience the interconnectedness among the SDGs in a compressed time and space. Various investments and project cards enable players to experiment with the outcomes of their strategies. For example, they can check how ensuring equal rights to men and women affects the quality of education and thus the employment rate, or how the introduction of sustainable goods and services may reduce carbon emissions without reducing wellbeing. On the other hand, limited budgets and clashing interests make players understand that sustainable transformation requires time, effort, negotiation, and acceptance of difficult trade-offs.

This compression of time and space combined with instant feedback enables players to have an insightful outlook into a possible future. That’s a unique opportunity, as what often hinders transformation is uncertainty and the associated fear of what repercussions will appear if the wrong step is taken. In the safe environment of a simulation, testing strategies and making mistakes is easier and may result in truly innovative ideas. Of course, it will still be only a “simulated” solution, one of many possible scenarios, yet without such a “trip into the future”, we might not be ready to launch necessary transformations on multiple levels, be it individual, organisational or national.

Everything you’re saying sounds really optimistic. With that said, my last question is: Can we replace traditional education with games and social simulations?

I wouldn’t recommend this. In fact, I believe we should consider these two methods as complementary. Textbooks, research results, scientific reports, etc. provide us with facts—they help us understand what is going on around us. Expert knowledge is very important and we cannot do without it. Games and simulations, on the other hand, offer hands-on experience. They are more engaging, more focused on active problem-solving. Their social element—all these stormy discussions, negotiations and conflicts—may embed the abstract facts in social contexts and additionally arouse a wide range of emotions, from frustration to curiosity and excitement. And this is good because studies have shown that emotions make learning more memorable.

If you would like to find out more about EIT Climate-KIC’s new online course on Teaching Sustainability Using Simulations, go here.  

This article originally appeared in tbd.

 
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